Arthur Ashe vs. the Amateurs
How local surgeon Robert Nirschl's videotapes of pro players and club leagues at Washington Golf and Country Club led to a pioneering treatment for tennis elbow.
In 1965, he got a job at Georgetown University Medical Center and moved his family to the D.C. area.
Five years later he was analyzing his own tennis film footage and dissecting the elbows of cadavers, in part to understand his own aches and pains. Though he had pioneered groundbreaking surgeries—in 1967 he was one of the first in the world to publish a patella-bone technique for ACL reconstruction of the knee—he concluded that surgery should be a last resort for fixing “tennis elbow,” a condition in which muscles and tendons become damaged due to repetitive movements and overuse.
“Tennis players strengthen the front part of their shoulder but weaken the back part,” Nirschl explains. “The imposed demands of the sport create muscle imbalances which invite injury.”
And in most cases, that injury can be fixed by avoiding overuse while rebuilding those weakened muscle groups via supplemental workouts and physical therapy. “The body changes based on the sport,” he says. “So, you need to change with it.”
Nirschl’s unorthodox methods weren’t accepted by the medical community right away. “In 1974, I’m in the parking lot of [Virginia Hospital Center, then known as Arlington Hospital],” he recalls, “and a couple of doctors come up to me to tell me my [ideas] were all hokum and that I knew nothing.”
But in the years that followed, he would go on to treat professional athletes of every ilk, from tennis stars and MLB pitchers to NFL quarterbacks. For 35 years he served as the team doctor for Bishop O’Connell High School (all of his kids went there) and, in 1981, he was appointed to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. He remembers meeting Ronald Reagan. “It was all about encouraging proper fitness in the schools.”
Today, Nirschl continues to consult with patients out of his practice at Virginia Hospital Center. He and Mary Ann, his wife of 61 years, still live in the McLean house they bought in 1970. They have three children, 11 grandchildren (several of whom have gone into medicine) and two great-grandchildren. “I’m so proud of them,” he says.
Another point of pride? Having helped countless patients realize that complicated, stressful and expensive surgery is not necessarily the answer to every sports injury. To this day, he says, patients still come into his office thinking that they need an operation. “I talk about 50 percent of folks out of surgery,” he says. “They save money and get a good result.”
Matt Blitz is a local journalist who writes for various national and regional publications. He lives on Columbia Pike with his wife and cat.